“Have you hugged a pastor today!?”
Without waiting for an answer or even an introduction, Rick Warren, megachurch minister and bestselling author, crosses his Manhattan hotel suite and swallows me up in a teddy-bearish embrace. A coterie of aides and handlers look on in amusement but not surprise. Warren is all about the agape, and he is a fierce and frequent hugger.
This seems only fitting. Since exploding onto the global stage in 2002 with his phenomenally successful book The Purpose Driven Life, Warren has been the warm and friendly face of evangelicalism—a welcoming, avuncular alternative to hellfire-and-brimstone finger waggers such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. With his goatee and dressed-down aesthetic (for our meeting he’s sporting jeans, a bright blue and robin’s-egg plaid oxford, and black slip-ons), 58-year-old “Pastor Rick” cultivates the casual, cool-dad aura of the boomer generation to which he belongs. (He has the Korean rap phenomenon “Gangnam Style” as his ringtone and, in classic SoCal fashion, shuns socks unless visiting wintery climes such as New York in late November). Warren’s ministry, similarly, presents Christianity in a relatable, user-friendly package, much in keeping with his book’s uplifting promise that every one of our lives has meaning.
These days, however, the aggressively upbeat Warren is increasingly disheartened by what he sees as a “malaise” afoot in the land. “I feel America is in the emotional doldrums,” he says sadly. The economy is sluggish, the political system is a disaster, and citizens are at each other’s throats. He observes, “I think America is more divided today—and it’s sad—than at any time since the Civil War.”
Warren voices special concern for younger generations. “There’s a lot of people in their 20s and even early 30s still waiting for their lives to start,” he observes. They can’t find jobs. They’re moving back in with their parents. “They’re like, where’s the American Dream for me?”
Bottom line, says Warren: “This nation is in desperate need of some direction and purpose and meaning. Somebody’s got to speak up now. And I thought, OK. If nobody else volunteers, I’ll step up.”
Which is precisely how the good reverend plans to spend the coming year. This holiday season, a 10th-anniversary edition of The Purpose Driven Life hits stores, updated with two new chapters and scads of links to video and audio extras designed for the age of social media. Next month Warren will launch a nationwide church “campaign” (as he did with the first edition) that enables ministers to order DIY teaching kits to help spread the purpose-driven message within their own congregations. With this reboot, Warren aims to introduce a new generation to the Good News—perhaps even spark a “Great Awakening” among the grassroots, he notes hopefully.
It is a tall order—and one that s ome in the evangelical community doubt Warren still has the juice to pull off. In the past couple of years, Warren’s star has unquestionably dimmed a bit. His profile outside evangelical circles has dropped—most notably in the political realm, where he cast a long shadow in the 2008 campaign but was largely invisible this time around. Even within the evangelical community, Warren is no longer a central focus of the movement’s energy, as fresher, feistier players have risen up in his wake.
Indeed, Warren is in New York as part of a massive PR tour he’s doing for the revised book. (“Twenty interviews in two days!” he tells me.) After years of staying largely out of the spotlight, he is now energetically courting it. A decade after reassuring us all that God has a purpose for our lives, Rick Warren is attempting a revival not only of his message but of his position in the firmament of spiritual leaders.
A feel-good field guide to Christianity, The Purpose Driven Life rocketed Warren to global fame. Featuring 40 easy-to-digest chapter-a-day lessons bearing pithy titles like “You Are Not an Accident” and “Becoming Best Friends With God,” the book sold 32 million copies in hardback and was translated into more than 50 languages. Warren points out that this makes it the No. 2–most translated book in history, second only to the Bible. Warren’s 20,000-member home church, Saddleback, which he founded in Southern California in 1980 at the tender age of 25, spawned scores of satellite congregations (including 35 Spanish-speaking churches in Orange County alone).
With the book’s proceeds, Warren launched a massive global-outreach effort in 2005 aimed at merging spiritual and humanitarian work. Known as PEACE, the plan has drawn praise from everyone from Billy Graham to Bono to Hillary Clinton. Warren’s aim was to put volunteers in every single nation on the planet—a feat recently realized with Saddleback’s dispatch of members to St. Kitts. Thus, much of Warren’s time in recent years has been spent, as he puts it, “overseas in little villages you’ve never heard of.”
Back at home, meanwhile, the reverend became something of a political power player. Fancying himself a “bridge builder” in the mold of Billy Graham, Warren hasn’t played partisan hardball like many of his evangelical brethren. “He’s worked very hard at trying to be seen as apolitical,” notes Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelical Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “We know Rick is socially, culturally, and morally a conservative,” says Cromartie, “but he’s very eager to not be seen as Jerry Falwell.”
This persona helped Warren present himself as an honest broker during the 2008 presidential race between then-senators Barack Obama and John McCain. The two-hour candidate forum hosted at Saddleback in August of that year signaled Warren’s ascension to the top tier of politically influential religious leaders—a rise cemented by his delivering the invocation at Obama’s inauguration.
Since then, however, Warren has dropped off the political radar—“gone dark,” as he puts it. At one point in the 2012 cycle, he announced plans to host another candidate forum (at the behest of both campaigns, he insists), only to later call the whole thing off. There was much chatter about whether the event had been canceled because the nominees wouldn’t commit. Word on the evangelical street, meanwhile, was that Warren was feeling so hostile toward Obama that he couldn’t even pretend to remain neutral. For his part, Warren insists that he simply became disgusted with the whole sordid spectacle. “Rather than either camp presenting a clear vision for the future, it was, ‘The other guy’s a jerk,’” he says. “They were playing small ball.”
And while Warren insists that he likes both men personally (“I have known them for years!”), he is also clearly unimpressed by either. “I have trained leaders all over the world,” says Warren with uncharacteristic irritation. “Real leaders take the blame and give away the credit.” These two, by contrast, were all about blaming the other guy and blowing their own horns, even when inappropriate. (One example that particularly chafes Warren: the Obama administration’s cooperation in the upcoming movie Zero Dark Thirty, about the killing of Osama bin Laden. “Can you imagine President George W. Bush doing something like that?” he asks.)
Worse still, after all that Sturm und Drang, says Warren, we wind up right back where we started. “We just spent $2 billion on an election, and nothing changed. We’ve got the same Congress, the same Senate, and the same White House.” Even for those who supported Obama, there is a sense that, because of the divided, polarized government, we are in for “four more years of gridlock,” he says.
Asked whether the recent election would provoke a crisis among evangelicals, Warren seems grimly pleased by the idea. He expresses hope that it will lead the movement to give up on the idea that political power—“no matter which party wins”—can cure what ails our culture. “The country is on a slide toward Europe,” he says. And it will continue that slide until we experience a spiritual awakening, one that Warren asserts will come not from politicians but from the grassroots. “It may be an event that does it. Or a program.” He pauses, then muses that maybe his own new campaign will jar something lose.
Warren is not shy about his influence or renown. (One might reasonably ask if the sin with which he wrestles most vigorously is pride.) He breezily rattles off the number of churches his ministry has spawned, the pastors he’s pastored ( 400,000 in 164 countries), and the humanitarian foot soldiers he’s dispatched across the globe. He also has an endless stream of anecdotes about the famous elbows he’s rubbed. Like when he asked Aretha Franklin how it felt to be at Obama’s inauguration. (“Cold,” she informed him.) Or the evening he had a quiet (prescandal) dinner with Gen. David Petraeus.
Still, it has been 10 years since The Purpose Driven Life took the globe by storm, and some in the evangelical community say Warren’s moment has passed.
“He is one of pioneers of the boomer generation of evangelical leadership, but I think there’s something else going on in the church today,” says Michael Horton, host of the popular White Horse Inn radio ministry. “There is disenchantment with market-driven approaches [like Warren’s]. A new generation is looking for a little bit more seriousness and depth.”
“At some point you have to move beyond elementary school,” says evangelical radio host Steve Deace, echoing the common criticism that Warren’s message has been dumbed down to attract as many converts as possible.
Richard Mouw, president of the prestigious Fuller Theological Seminary (where Warren got a doctorate in ministry), has a simpler explanation. “The evangelical system is a star system.” Forget bishops or seminary leaders, says Mouw—the people who tend to wield influence are those who rise to the top of “media empires.”
Evangelicals also tend to be “quite fickle,” says Mouw. “We go for certain kinds of trendy things.”
(Some of the ascendant stars mentioned include Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian, Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill in Seattle, R.C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries in Florida, Paul Washer of the HeartCry Missionary Society, and John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis.) So while Warren still commands “tremendous respect,” and has achieved a kind of “elder statesman” status, “he hasn’t been bringing as much new material into the marketplace of ideas,” says Tim Dalrymple, editor of the evangelical channel at the religious website Patheos.com.
Can an updated edition and campaign for The Purpose Driven Life recharge Warren’s star?
Unlikely, says Dalrymple. “What he wrote was powerfully appealing in that moment to that generation. If he wants to have the same kind of broad and profound impact that he did, he’ll have to write a new book that’s more savvy to the current generation.”
Deace agrees. “You can’t go back and re-create what you did before. That almost never happens in a movement. [The message] has to evolve—with a little ‘e.’”
As any good evangelical will tell you, nothing of this world lasts forever. So too will Warren’s tenure at Saddleback end—sooner than some in his flock might prefer. Upon founding the church, Warren promised to devote 40 years to it. Now in year 32, he says he has every intention of stepping aside in another eight. In some ways, not much will change. When his “Saddleback phase” is over, Warren plans to commit himself full time to his global PEACE ministry.
Still, the prospect of saying goodbye to his carefully nurtured church clearly moves Warren. Talking about how much he loves his church family, he is suddenly overwhelmed by emotion. “I would die for my church. I would rather stick a knife in my heart than hurt them, and they know that. You can fake love for two years.” Warren’s voice breaks and his eyes fill with tears. He has to stop and compose himself, before continuing hoarsely, “But you can’t fake it for 32. You either love them or you don’t, and my people know that I’m giving my life for them. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Of course, for Warren, the flock clearly doesn’t encompass merely Saddleback, but the entire nation—if not the world—in all its darkness and confusion.
This is going to require an awful lot of hugs.